At the start of the week, the government prompted an outcry on social media by putting a modern spin on the Conservative message to people who lost their job in the 1980s. ‘Get on your bike’ has become ‘get a job in cyber’ as we hurtle towards mass unemployment this winter. It’s a striking coincidence, then, that we end the week with an update on the government’s progress on upgrading the UK’s broadband network – the very infrastructure such jobs, and much of its levelling up agenda, relies upon.
The picture painted by the National Audit Office’s ‘Improving Broadband’ report published today is a concerning one. Ten years ago the government set out a plan for the UK to have “the best” superfast broadband network in Europe. Yet today the UK sits not in first, but in eighth place. 1.6 million homes and businesses still don’t have access to superfast speeds (defined as 30 megabytes per second); some 600,000 premises can’t even get 10 megabytes per second; and the government’s superfast rollout programme looks set to miss its deadline by four years.
What’s really worrying is that all of that is the good news. On gigabit-capable broadband (speeds of up to 1,000 megabytes) the NAO report ranks the UK a lowly 27th out of 28 European countries and today just 14% of premises have a full fibre connection. While the government pledged in the general election to secure the rollout of gigabit speeds to the whole of the country by 2025, it now seems to have downgraded this to ‘going as far as possible’ and there’s a growing consensus in the industry that the original target will be missed.
The reason for this is pretty clear from the NAO paper. Full fibre (or gigabit capable) infrastructure is much more challenging to deliver than superfast broadband and the £5 billion subsidy the government has pledged to pay commercial providers to roll this out in rural areas won’t even kick-in until autumn next year. To express what this means in simple terms: the rollout of a much more difficult project will need to go at more than twice the speed we saw with a far simpler programme in the past decade. And it will need to get four times faster than we’re currently managing.
Famously, Labour went into the last election proposing an alternative to leaving things to the market and subsidising commercial providers. It proposed instead to bring BT into public ownership in order to build a full fibre public broadband network. There were several strong arguments for this. Crucially, the government’s own research showed that having one infrastructure provider could be faster and would save £12 billion on build costs alone by avoiding the country paying for several different networks, all sat alongside each other, in the most profitable areas.
It seems absurd, but this is the government’s plan. As the NAO points out, the risk is that the rural homes and businesses that were left behind in the past decade will be missed out again, further entrenching the digital divide. And the NAO raises other interesting points about the government’s plans. Tellingly, it says that having multiple owners of our broadband infrastructure “did not translate into more competition or better outcomes for consumers” – the very things the government’s market-led approach with vast public subsidies is supposed to deliver.
In fact, small private operators have ended up with monopolies in different parts of the country and there’s been nothing consumers can do about it. So it’s worrying that the government is now planning to have some 1,200 different contracts to pay for gigabit capable broadband in rural areas alone. And this isn’t an ideological point – it really matters. Since it was privatised in 1984, BT has paid out more than £54 billion in dividends in today’s values. This could have paid for a full-fibre broadband network for the UK twice over. Or yes, it could have helped cover the costs for free broadband – just think of all the cyber jobs we’d have then.
While the NAO report is about broadband, the issues it has highlighted will be grimly familiar to anyone who’s looked at the privatisation, liberalisation and regulation of what were once public services over recent decades. Upgrading our infrastructure like broadband is absolutely crucial for the future (from levelling up to climate change) and the questions of competition, ownership and control – and what they mean for our financial and geographical digital divides – are ones we should all be asking. It’s been dispiriting that parts of the left have seemingly dismissed all of these issues with an analysis that starts and ends with ‘buses not broadband’. But it’s the Conservatives that are in power and the difficult questions from today’s report are for the government.
The final thought here should be where we started; jobs and workers in the industry are almost universally overlooked in these debates. Having kept the country connected as essential workers for the past six months, unbelievably BT is now threatening its staff with compulsory redundancy. And the new private providers being encouraged in by the government are undercutting their terms and conditions by relying on agency staff and contractors rather than creating tech jobs for the long-term future. With the £5 billion it has committed the government must use its procurement power to promote good work across the sector and to protect the existing jobs that are under threat.
At the start of the summer the TUC also called for the government to bring forward an extra £3.5 billion in investment to create an additional 40,000 roles as part of a green recovery. It can and should still do so – to truly level up across the country, to create and support the cyber jobs it craves and to ensure the 2025 target stands a chance of being met. As the NAO report underlines, on all of these challenges like so many more, if the country needs anyone to get on their bike now, it’s the government.